The Air War on Forest Fires

California's Angora forest fire jumped out of control at about 2:30 on Tuesday afternoon. Until that moment, fire officials had seemed confident that the worst had passed in the blaze that had already burned 3,100 acres and destroyed about 200 homes south of South Lake Tahoe, Calif. But a backfire that firefighters had set to block the main blaze went wild and shot toward a subdivision, forcing 2,000 residents to evacuate. Helicopter pilots who had been methodically dumping water on hotspots quickly turned to drop their loads on the advancing flames. The water worked. "A couple of direct hits from the helicopters helped clean up those spot fires," Bob Becker, a relieved U.S. fire information specialist, crowed Tuesday night.

Aerial warfare against the nation's forest fires is nothing new. But as the fire threat grows—thanks to short-term droughts, the longer-range threats of global warming and a vast expansion of new homes built next to flammable wild lands—some wonder whether federal fire officials have the right mix of air power to fight the menace. "What you have is akin to a military mission, and you don't have the proper (aviation) equipment to provide for safety on the ground," says Jim Hall, a former chief of the National Transportation Safety Board who co-chaired a 2002 panel critical of federal fire-aviation safety and preparedness.

The pressure to get it right is growing. The annual national totals for forest-fire burns has topped 8 million acres only three times since 1960: in 2004, 2005 and 2006. The early 2007 fire toll—1.6 million acres so far—is already running well ahead of last year, when a record 9.9 million acres burned. And the season is just getting underway in the West; drought in the region has primed the Southwest, California and the northern Rockies to be torched. In California, record-low rainfall in Los Angeles and an unusually low snow pack in the Sierra Nevada range have already led to an unusual number of fires. "We've been very busy for this early," marvels Linda Naill, a dispatcher at the air-tanker base in Minden, Nev., which services 10 million acres in Nevada and California. "We had 180 fires before June 1, which is sort of the start of our fire season. It's usually just a handful."

Officials say big planes are the most cost-effective way of mounting the initial strikes that help keep small forest fires from mushrooming into deadly conflagrations. But aerial firefighters are having to battle more blazes with fewer of these planes. Until 2002, the U.S. Forest Service hired 41 air tankers to fight fires—aging four-engine prop planes that could drop up to 3,000 gallons of water or foam retardant. Now, they have just 16. The current tanker fleet—mostly Lockheed P3 and P2V naval sub chasers—is made up of aircraft first made in the mid-1960s and manufactured up until a few years ago. To supplement the drop in tankers, fire officials have contracted for more helicopters: 35 full-time water-dropping choppers, plus another 300 on call. They've added 20 smaller planes called Single-Engine Air Tankers, or SEATs, which can drop 500 to 800 gallons of retardant or water (and have another 80 on call).

Federal fire officials say they are making up for lost numbers by using their air assets more wisely. Tankers roam the West, getting into position so that they can move swiftly to stop a small fire from spreading, says Marc Rounsaville, deputy director for fire and aviation for the U.S. Forest Service. If that fails and the blaze grows into a "large fire"—one covering more than a few hundred acres—they bring in the helicopters and move the tankers to the next fire. "We focus our large tankers on initial attacks and use our helicopters on large fires" if the initial attack fails to quell the fires, says Rounsaville. "It's more efficient and cost effective." Officials have cut costs further by contracting for the exclusive use of air tankers and choppers for the whole fire season—rather than relying on more expensive contracts for aircraft deployed when emergencies arise. A new helicopter contract alone will save $20 million, offficials say.

Still, experts are worried there aren't enough tankers. "Questions persist about the ability to have that rapid response, based on the age of the fleet and the need to retrofit it, so that it can be as effective as it should be," says Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, who chairs a public lands subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee. The addition of helicopters, he says, "is a wonderful complement to a robust tanker fleet, but I don't see it as a substitute for a robust tanker fleet." Rounsaville says that three more tankers will be used later this summer, and military planes can be pressed into service in emergencies.

The reduction of the tanker fleet followed two deadly crashes in 2002 of aging aircraft that broke apart in midair amid firefights in California and Colorado and killed five crewmen. A blue-ribbon report on aerial fire-fighting safety headed by former NTSB chairman Hall and Texas state forester James Hull found that the tanker fleet had an unacceptable safety record. After a second critical report, in 2004, this time by the National Transportation Safety Board itself, the Forest Service canceled contracts with tanker operators, terminating 33 tankers, banned further use of two older types of planes involved in the crashes—and re-evaluated the rest of their fleet. "The (16) planes we have now are some of our most effective air tankers that we had prior to those catastrophic crashes," says Rounsaville.

The new system makes up in efficiency what it lost in air-tanker numbers, according to one federal contractor whose company owns eight air tankers. "Now the Forest Service stations the planes where the greatest risk is," says Terry Unsworth, CEO of Aero Union Inc., of Chico, Calif., rather than basing them at set locations whether or not there are fires nearby. "I think it's working better."

Fighting fire isn't cheap. It accounts for a whopping 45 percent of the Forest Service's proposed 2008 budget, according to Forest Service officials—up from 25 percent in 2000. Last year, the fire suppression total was a record $1.5 billion. The air war sucks up a quarter to a third of that spending. P3 tankers cost the government $9,300 for every day of the season—plus $6,104 for each hour the plane actually flies, according to Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center, in Boise, Idaho. The smaller P2V costs $3,230 each day of the first season. Fire officials say the plane and helicopters are well worth the cost. They save millions by keeping fires smaller, obviating the need for additional firefighters—and in keeping forests and homes from going up in flames. The new helicopters are more expensive. A large helitanker costs the government $18,800 each day it's under contract, plus $6,370 per hour in the air; a large chopper with a water bucket runs to $11,250 per day, and $1,251 per air hour.

Critics call for the replacement of today's aging, retrofitted tankers with a modern craft built just for aerial firefighting. Jim Hall, who co-chaired the panel that explored the safety problems, calls for "aircraft that are specifically designed for (the fire-fighting) mission." That's an expensive solution. But Hall points out that Congress spends freely when designing military aircraft to counter external threats, and he thinks Congress should find a way "to encourage or incentivize the private development of large tankers" designed specifically for the need that, as he says, "is going to be with us." Rounsaville says the Forest Service is in talks with the Federal Aviation Administration and other federal agencies, but warns that aerospace contractors aren't likely to jump at the chance to spend millions designing a plane with a potential sales market of only 30 or 40 units.

Some contractors, meanwhile, have explored the possibility of turning jumbo commercial planes into supertankers. The federal government has talked off and on with a company about outfitting a Boeing 747, but nothing has come of it yet. California state fire officials recently signed a three-year, $5 million deal for a DC-10 widebody jet capable of dropping an impressinve 12,000 gallons of foam on fires. But on Monday the plane was damaged when a severe downdraft forced it to scrape the treetops while fighting a second Californaia wildfire, near Tehachapi. No one was hurt, but officials had to ground their newest air asset indefinitely. Meanwhile, U.S. Forest Service officials were quick to point out that they had declined to certify the plane for fighting federal fires. The reason: safety concerns. Here's hoping the flames die down soon.